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Suspension of disbelief

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The doctrine, originally coined by Samuel T. Coleridge in his 1817 publication of Biographia listeria, ‘suspension of disbelief’ is built, principally, on the idea that, in order to fully immerse in the fictional world, it is paramount that we force ourselves to believe in premises not ordinarily accepted in the ‘real world.’ In engaging, impermanently, in the semi-conscious decision of suspending disbelief, conducive to appreciating the arts, viewers use their imagination to underplay realism. The prescribed title > prompts, and effectively obligates, an understanding of the language used, specifically with reference to decoding the phrase ‘essential feature.’ This essay will explore the prompt with the intelligence that ‘essential feature’ means ‘necessary part or attribute,’ hence, it will focus on the pretense that suspension of disbelief is not a preface limited solely to theatre, rather it presents its necessity in both areas of knowledge, the natural sciences, and religious knowledge systems. The nucleus of scientific progress is based profoundly on the prospect of theorized ideas- both untested and unproven. This presents the semblance that in order to advance, suspension of disbelief is necessary. In its embryonic stages predominantly, yet still to this day, with the ever-developing nature of science, scientists must believe in its plausibility, with no certainty in its truth.

Briefly discussed in our IB Physics class when learning about electromagnetic fields, we entered a discussion about how, where, unlike the known electromagnetic field, in the standard model of particle physics, the elementary particle, known as the Higgs Boson particle, has a nonzero constant value in a vacuum. The Higgs Boson particle, recently brought into circulation, was discovered solely on the basis of imagination. What now serves as the explanation for all physical forces, this article was described as being “The only particle predicted by the standard model of physics that hasn’t yet been observed” (Hank Green). Even before the particle was discovered, it was referred to as “famous,” suggesting that many people already believed in its existence, with absolutely no proof.

Antecedent to its finding, it was “invented” as a way to explain findings in the field of particle physics. In an article on the Smithsonian, it became prevalent that none of the language used was founded on certainty; fundamental ideas were accompanied with the words ‘if you imagined.’ Language in itself suggests that this discovery was based mainly on a “what if,” which thereby constitutes the presence of suspension of disbelief, such language is the language used by the people making these discoveries, further supporting the claim that there is a certain sense of awareness to the paradoxical nature of their own field, which is somewhat confusing. If they know they are only searching for things they are imagining, why do they continue to pursue it? This question allows the entire pretense of the prescribed title to be flipped on its head – offering an explanation of an instance when the presence of a suspension of disbelief would actually halt the process of advancement. This concept of an alternate framework of reality, as explored in the example above, can be disproved in an alternate area of natural sciences. Indoctrinated in two types, discovery and experimental science, the system of biology can be lauded for the explanation of simple and complex living forms in the universe, as we know it. Every biology class that I have ever taken has started by re-introducing the cell theory, and, year after year, I’ve been fed the fundamentals in furthering my understanding as a biologist. The cell theory outlines both discovered and experimental science. Discovered is based on observations whereas experimental is based on controlled hypothesis testing.

The very origin of cells, as explained in the cell theory, was formally articulated in 1839 by Schleiden & Schwann and has remained as the foundation of modern biology. The idea predates other great paradigms of biology including Darwin’s theory of evolution (1859), Mendel’s laws of inheritance (1865), and the establishment of comparative biochemistry (1940). First discovered by Robert Hooke in 1665, the cell, Hooke remarked, looked strangely similar to cellular or small rooms which monks inhabited, thus deriving the name. Hence, because of the fact that the very essence of biology, the building block, so to say, is founded on a discovery, it allows for the interpretation that biology is rooted in observable (discoverable) science as opposed to that which requires a suspension of disbelief. Breakthroughs in the field can be attributed to experimental biology, some of which are groundbreaking and pertinent to millions worldwide to this day. To name a few, RNA Interference, which directed research in ‘silence genes,’ the cloning of Dolly the Sheep, and the discovery of Stem Cells. So it stands to reason that further advancements in biology are founded on such principle, thus making suspension of disbelief an ‘essential feature’ in the natural science.

Faith, a way of knowing, almost tailored to the area of knowledge of Religious Knowledge Systems, is a belief in what has no tangible proof. If faith comes from within the literature of religion – the Quran, the Bible, the Torah — is there a particular mechanism that can define a document of faith? Great novels and movie scripts are similar to the great religious documents in the stories and connections they make with the human condition. If I can believe that Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden or visualize the enormity of the Tower of Babel, I can imagine Kafka’s bug and Ahab’s white whale. Does the concept of “willing suspension of disbelief” play as great a part in faith as it does in reading and analyzing literature and viewing fictional movies? As writers, we use the concept of willing suspension of disbelief as a working tool. When does a reader pull away from the narrative and realize that the writer is manipulating him? At what point in the novel or story does the writer distract us and pull us away from our poetic devotion and faith in the authorial vision? These questions are discussed in workshops in writing programs and English departments globally. This such concept is critical to writers because readers who commit to reading a novel-length story are willing to suspend disbelief for a good story, but are only willing to accept it if it is properly and perhaps masterfully executed. We are willing to follow the allegory of the Animal Farm to discover the writer’s meaning and intent. We are willing to put our faith and time into a duffel bag aboard the Pequod and hunt down a white whale. We even find it easy to follow a madman tilting at windmills with a sarcastic sidekick.

Willing suspension of disbelief is important in that it is a psychological or mental process that readers and writers use to shift between the words on the page and the reality and can be found true in basic common practices and accepted beliefs within religion. The willing suspension of disbelief in terms of religious scripture isn’t about the form of the texts, but how we are willing to view and interact with the spiritual scripture. It is our willingness to accept the human values, the moral and spiritual offerings of blind faith. Applying willing suspension of disbelief to religious values isn’t about form and art, but our own ability to apply our own lives and understanding of the world to a common text. This such idea completely changes the playing field and our understanding of ‘blind faith.’ In the end, blind faith might not be blind at all; it might be the willing suspension of disbelief that aligns and measures the depth of our spiritual understanding. The understanding of suspension of disbelief, both in the context of theatre and the arts, and other areas of knowledge is imperative to our understanding of where our knowledge comes from and how it’s acquired, in large.

Unknowingly, we’ve been practicing a willing suspension of disbelief since childhood, this prescribed title, through exploring the idea in different areas of knowledge and not limiting it to the obvious field of production, simply probes the construct that such a pretense is often the preface in various other fields. In the introduction of my essay I defined what I had interpreted from the term ‘essential feature,’ this definition, in effect, carved out the form that my essay would take. If however, I had differently interpreted the diction, my arguments may have been very different, hence the weaknesses in my essay would lie in the cracks in my understand of the terminology. Through the developed arguments, however, I have concluded that suspension of disbelief is an essential feature in other areas of knowledge besides theater and the arts, where it is more blatantly practiced.

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